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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 3, 2004 - Issue 110


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The Indian Priest
Father Philip B. Gordon
Chapter 6 - Happy Reunion

by Paula Delfeld
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

The excitement of Summer Ended all to soon. The school term began in September and Philip was attending St. Mary's Mission School at Odanah. The Franciscans had obtained government permission to build a school in 1881. The Indians, including Protestants and pagans, felled trees and hewed logs to erect a little log school, which opened in 1883 with two Franciscan Sisters from La Crosse, Wisconsin, as teachers. During the next decades, no less than eight additions were built.

By the time Philip Gordon entered the school, Father Chrysostom had obtained some government help and the school became a boarding school as well as a day school.

Phil received First Communion and Confirmation and was in contact with Franciscan Fathers. His health was not good at this time and some of the family had already died of tuberculosis, which was prevalent in Indian communities.

Gradually the scenery changed to amber and tan with splashes of brilliant red, purple and gold. White birch with their shimmering golden leaves stood out against the dark green pines. A touch of autumn was in the air and again it would be ricing time, but the long, severe winter lay ahead.

Phil was a good student and liked to study; but he looked forward to spring, for in March the Indian families would travel to the sugar bush. This would be another time of festivity, and it would also be a reunion with Joe Mesabi.

Indians had been gathering the sweet maple sap for centuries. Historians believed they only partly reduced the sap to form sweet liquid which was used as a medicine.

The Jesuit Relations tell how an early missionary, hearing that a pagan Indian was near death, visited his wigwam and administered the last rites of the Church.

After baptizing him from a bark vessel in the room, he inquired of the man's wife what medicine the patient had been taking. The woman pointed to the vessel. The priest discovered he had performed the ceremony again.

When the sugaring season arrived, the women went ahead to prepare the camp. They traveled on snowshoes and carried the rolled sheets of birchbark by a pack strap across their foreheads. The pack was not heavy but it made a rather awkward, towering package. It must have been overwhelming on one as small as A-te-ge-kwe.

The lodge framework had been left from the previous year and the women laid the sheets of bark on the roof, fastening them with deerskin thongs. Inside, on a platform they spread cedar boughs on which they laid mats, blankets and furs. Here is where the family would sleep during their stay in the sugar bush.

Next, they turned back the rolls of birchbark on the storehouse and inspected the utensils that had been stored there since the last season, so see what would be needed. They were now using metal pails and iron kettles for cooking the sap in place of the birchbark utensils of their ancestors. The Indians had taught the French how to collect and reduce the sap and the French in turn introduced the iron kettle and so improved the process.

The metal utensils had been taken home after the previous season and would again be brought to the camp later. But they still used birchbark makuks. These were always scrubbed with wood ashes and stone at the end of the season, then stacked together, tied, and stored upside down in the storehouse. Some of these makuks had to be mended with balsam or spruce gum so they would not leak.

There were chores to be done in preparation for collection sap and when these were completed the women returned home for their families.

What a happy reunion for Phil and Joe! They had so many things to talk about but they were growing up and were able to help with the work of gathering the sap. Sunny days and frosty nights had started the sap running, but there was still snow on the ground. On snowshoes, the boys went happily from tree to tree to help insert the wooden spouts, which had been whittled from sumac branches in the late winter. They suspended buckets beneath each spout to collect the sap.

Each day they plodded through the woods to collect the sap and bring it to the kettle hanging over the fire. But the Indians took their work and recreation together and there was feasting and dancing along with the work.

Since Phil had last seen him, Mesabi had learned many of the arts from Osawati. Most of the Indians were taking French or English names, which they sometimes mispronounced so that they had a distinctive sound. Surnames were often acquired because they were needed on payroll records of the lumber camps where they worked. Some of the names were translated from their Indian names, like Hole-in-the-Day and Little Buffalo.

Osawati had taken his name when he took his trial to become a warrior and had never Americanized it because he was the chief medicine man or shaman of the tribe. Mesabi, too, preformed to be called by his Indian name as he was being trained to replace Osawati.

Like most Indians, they believed in a Supreme Being, a mystic supernatural force which permeated all Nature and was called Manitou. They looked on the earth and its trees, fruits, and animals as gifts from the Great Spirit, and believed in spiritual being who were the personification of elements in Nature.

Mesabi was learning to call upon these spirits when healing herbs or curative agents were administered. The cure was accompanied with ceremony, incantations, songs and prayers to the spirits. Osawati, as a shaman, was above the other medicine chiefs and would always sit at the right of them at the councils. Mesabi would inherit this title and carry on the legendry to the next generation.

Philip had grown to be a handsome young man, slender and not very tall. His straight black hair was usually neatly combed. His black eyes were quite closely set in a very dark-skinned, broad face. His straight nose and slightly full lips and high forehead gave him an attractive, intelligent appearance. When he was fifteen, Philip passed the county examination and received a teacher's certificate. The nuns at the school saw his potential and raised money so he could attend Superior State Normal School for one year.

The paths of the two Indian boys were taking them farther and farther apart.

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